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The Portal

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Feature-documentary The Portal was produced by ex-financier (Australia’s self-professed ‘Wolf of Wall Street’) turned meditation expert Tom Cronin, and directed by first-timer, Jacqui Fifer.

With climate crisis, political unrest and potential world catastrophe looming, the timing for this film couldn’t be better. Encouraging a new way of thinking, the film proposes: ‘Calm your mind. Open your heart. Transform the world’. Could mindfulness ignite a planetary shift and save humanity?

Inspired by the idea that crisis is the catalyst for change, The Portal shares the stories of six individuals who have used meditation as a device to help them through desperate moments, and is supported by compelling insights from futurists.

The film’s premise is altruistic, and the stories shared are honest and heartfelt. The cast are admirable human beings who have each encountered hardship and adversity in life. A ghetto kid turned military man; anxious immigrant Vietnamese daughter turned Harvard business success; United Nations human rights expert, and a former athlete/TV presenter. Each have turned their lives around and now work to support humanity teaching mindfulness in some form. The futurists help build the story and paint a picture as to what life could be like, sharing interesting (and somewhat disturbing) plans such as using AI to provide unconditional love and therefore emotional connection for humans.

For a film about stillness, The Portal is very busy. The narrative is split between nine individuals, whose stories are shared via a mixture of mediums from documentary to animation. Whilst the characters are diverse and have interesting memories and opinions to share, weaving in and out of their stories is at times confusing. The film presents an optimistic view, through stories of crisis and transformation, however, we are never privy to the transformation, just life before meditation and their professed improved, present day that now includes meditation. This missing piece makes the documentary disjointed and the editing – shifting from past, present and future – was also jarring.

Visually appealing – filmed in the US, Canada, Australia and a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan – the cinematography showcases nature in all its glory, with the film aiming to inspire humankind into a new era. Whilst not a transformational experience, The Portal is thoughtful and conveys hope and promise. Not for everyone – new age cynics and those who don’t think the planet is in trouble are unlikely to appreciate the message – its audience are those already on the path to enlightenment.

Enter The Portal

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Documentary, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

As the lawyers for disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein keep managing to push back his long awaited sexual assault trial – the latest postponement sees the trial commencing in January next year – a smart documentary by British filmmaker Ursula Macfarlane continues to remind us why Weinstein managed to escape incrimination for so long.

Together with his brother Bob, their Miramax film company achieved an extraordinary breakthrough in the late ‘80s when they would became one of the most influential producers in the American film industry thanks to a string of hits with sex, lies and videotape, My Left Foot and Cinema Paradiso.

While Bob kept a back seat, Harvey became a self-styled visionary and mogul. And, ultimately, a bully and a monster.

In his own words, we hear Weinstein describing himself as “the sheriff of this shit-ass fucking town” before putting a journalist in a head-lock on the streets of Manhattan – witnessed by about 100 paparazzi and press.

The fact that said pictures were never published anywhere proves his words to be true.

He owned the town.

But that was then, and this is now, and his years as an alleged sexual predator have given birth to an emboldened #MeToo generation of women who refuse to be silenced anymore.

Weinstein’s fortunes came crashing down under a barrage of allegations – harassment, blackmail, sexual assault, rape – published in both the New York Times and New Yorker magazine in October 2017.

Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, the documentary’s title is a nod to how Weinstein literally made himself untouchable and was able to bury his unsavoury private life for so long.

Macfarlane’s documentary answers a lot of those questions based on the testimony of former employees, investigative journalists and the courageous female prosecutors.

Untouchable avoids #MeToo’s most famous accusers like Asia Argento or Rose McGowan, focusing on lesser publicised victims Rosanna Arquette, Paz de la Huerta, Caitlin Dulaney and Erika Rosenbaum.

Macfarlane – a former BAFTA nominee for her titles Breaking up with the Joneses (2006) and One Deadly Weekend in America (2017) – also interviews key journalists Ronan Farrow, Megan Twohey and Ken Auletta.

Their testimony is compelling and also shows the audience how Weinstein escaped prosecution for more than three decades by using lawyers to pay off his victims who, in turn, signed non-disclosure agreements. He furthermore hired Black Cube, an expensive private investigation company ran by former Mossad operatives.

Financed by Weinstein’s deep pockets, Black Cube spied on his accusers and hunted down photographs of his victims – looking happy in Weinstein’s company at glamorous parties – to cynically be used as evidence to refute their claims.

Almost as traumatised as his victims are former employees – like Zelda Perkins – who could no longer stay on his payroll after learning the truth. Perkins even outlines how legally binding non-disclosure agreements meant that his victims couldn’t even reveal his abuse to their therapists for fear of retribution.

As early as 1998, one victim was paid US$250,000 in return for her silence while, at the same time, Weinstein was feted as a genius for producing The Piano, Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love.

Since 2017, more than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault or rape. Untouchable reminds us that nobody can escape the truth forever.

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Happy Sad Man

Australian, Documentary, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Cinema is going through a metamorphosis in terms of how it portrays male vulnerability on-screen. Going (if not gone) are the days of the hardened loner being rewarded with a personal breakthrough, in depictions that suggest grief and inner-turmoil are a self-development tool akin to a Tony Robbins conference. For many men, it is not a trope but a deep-seated issue that requires professional treatment.

Director Genevieve Bailey (I Am Eleven) intimately explores this subject matter in a series of interviews with a variety of men suffering from mental illness in the compassionately told Aussie documentary Happy Sad Man.

Inspired by her friendship with John, a larrikin and self-described ‘first hippie’ on the South East Coast of NSW, Bailey investigates modern masculinity from a grass-roots angle. In particular, she explores a culture of shame felt by men who do not express their emotions; a feat which the filmmakers interrogate with a respectful touch.

Bailey remains empathetic to the hardships of the men being interviewed. The diversity of the subjects – from inner-city progressives to bush folk – provides a relatively comprehensive scope of the issues at large, with the opportunity to explore the experiences of men of colour should a sequel be in the pipeline.

Happy Sad Man glosses over the history behind male toxicity. A smart move keeping the film focused on treatment and not causation. Bailey pushes an agenda of openness and discussion, with the struggles of the interviewees – depression, bipolar, mania, psychosis, suicide – providing an authentic account of the dangers of emotional suppression.

Bailey’s own narration interjects throughout the film, allowing the Director to digest the weight of the subject matter brought on by deeply-personal responses from interviewees. Too easily, this could have detracted, however, Bailey proves an ambitious director that remains laser-focused. Her commitment for betterment imbues Happy Sad Man with an optimistic tone that overpowers any self-serving misinterpretations.

The interviewees are just as dedicated as Bailey in raising awareness of male mental health. ‘It’s okay to not be okay’ and ‘no pain going to the doctor’ some of the many insightful statements spoken throughout Happy Sad Man. It is a film that finds power in giving the compassionate men a platform to offer relatable guidance that doesn’t come across as a PSA. For these men, a large portion of their lives is spent maintaining a balance somewhere between happy and sad, with their treatment (called their ‘recipe’) being put on offer to viewers as a message of solidarity.

Masculinity has taught men to bottle up their emotions so tightly that it proves difficult to re-open. Many films now present progressive attitudes, with recent releases Ad Astra and Good Boys challenging conventions of modern masculinity by highlighting the danger in apathy. Filmmakers should continue to challenge these constructs, with Happy Sad Man delivering genuinely powerful moments that exist as a hand of outreach.

Photo by Shannon Glasson

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The Eulogy

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Geoffrey Tozer was a child prodigy – he was playing Mozart at three and creating his own music at seven – who went on to become a phenomenally gifted and internationally acclaimed classical pianist. (Some say a genius.) He also died alone and destitute in 2009, aged only 54. This doco is an attempt to discover exactly what went wrong.

The title comes from Paul Keating’s searing speech at Tozer’s memorial service. Keating was a great admirer of Tozer’s talent, and a major (governmental) benefactor; he agreed to re-enact his speech – in which he slammed those who he believed treated Tozer shamefully – for the doco.

The tragic story is explored in a way that’s both nuanced and impassioned. It’s also both simple and complex, because key elements include a ‘stage’ mother who drove the young boy to excel… the Tall Poppy Syndrome… an ill-fated relationship… Tozer’s own utter lack of worldliness… alcohol abuse and unreliability…   the alleged abandonment of the man by the musical establishment (arguably the biggest factor of all)… and much more besides.

Most of the interviewees are highly eloquent. That includes the late conductor and educator Richard Gill, who completed his own involvement in the project during his final months. One of the highlights is, incidentally, the inspired and delightfully aesthetically pleasing use of animated graphics.

Keating claimed at one point in his eulogy that the way Tozer was overlooked by Melbourne and Sydney orchestras was “a case example of bitchiness and preciousness within the Australian arts”. Speaking of case examples, this film is one of how to make a fascinating, balanced and very moving documentary.

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Sam Zubrycki – Searching for Salsa

The Australian filmmaker has made an impressive debut with his feature length documentary Miguelito, which unravels the mystery of what happened to an 11-year-old boy who was discovered shining shoes and sang so poignantly on a classic album, translated as ‘I Sing to Puerto Rico’.
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Talking About Trees

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

A group of retired filmmakers unite to put on movie screenings in Omdurman, Sudan.

This is the deceptively simple basis of Talking About Trees, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s ruminative and yearning meditation on the power of filmmaking, and united voices.

Passionate cineastes and friends Ibrahim Shaddad, Eltayeb Mahdi, Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim and Manar Al-Hilo hold great nostalgia for the joys of the films they saw as kids (they re-enact a scene from Sunset Boulevard early on).

Now living much quieter lives, the friends re-watch their favourite flicks, peruse old photos, play with broken film cameras, and reminisce about their once grand, now abandoned movie theatres, the venues which exhibited many of their favourite inspirations.

Sudan has compulsorily shut down all movie theatres in an effort to stymie any attempts at political revolution. (Ironically, the central cinema in the film is called The Revolution.) There is very little entertainment, nightlife or cultural gatherings in Omdurman. The four men (who together formed the co-operative Sudanese Film Group, (SFG)) decide to create a program of regular and free screenings for the community, to try to bring back some life to their town.

Yet, what they find is that they have to get approval from the same regime which imposed the ban on cinemas in the first place. The rebellious septuagenarians are repeatedly vetoed in their attempts to bring cinema to their town. Making matters worse, the government which enacted this decree is subsequently re-elected for another half-decade. The men aren’t getting any younger.

The four comrades face opposition from the highest levels of government. Not only that, but law bodies separate to the government have the same attitude. What to do? How does one stay optimistic in an oppressive climate?

This is the predicament at the heart of this earnestly charming work, which is as much about movies as the strength of solidarity, of willpower and comradery.

Whilst their attempts to revitalise their beloved theatre seem doomed, the audience is shown excerpts of African cinema, some made by our protagonists in their youth, a time of heady political and social revolutions, an evocation of an optimism which once existed in Sudan.

Then, among these glimpses of the past, and the doom surrounding their proposed plans to open a cinema, we learn that one of them is working on another film. Despite the suppression and hopelessness, this elderly filmmaking co-operative is still making movies and excited by them. The government has essentially outlawed any form of artistic dissemination or creation, but undeterred, they still pursue their imperiled calling.

This is a story with a zest for life, a zeal and universality recalling Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Whilst the friends are beset with uncertainty, facing a future with the same government, they still have something to say about it. And they do. The fragments of their future film that viewers get to watch, are the triumph over this censorship and repression. These are the seeds of the future.

This spirit is the core of Suhaib Gasmelbari’s own covertly made documentary, which he directed and acted as cinematographer on.

A story told with plain simplicity, this is a penetrating study of art and passion – of triumph over adversity in the drabbest circumstance.

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Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

On the surface it looks as big a contrast of highbrow and mainstream as you can get – Ron Howard, director of films like Splash, Apollo 13 and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci series, takes on the life story of the world’s most famous opera star, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007 ). Howard may be far from arthouse, deeply bedded in traditional Hollywood structures of filmmaking, but he knows how to tell a story.

“I look for peak moments,” he says in a Masterclass. In Pavarotti, the peak moments are dictated by the highlights of the singer’s actual life and shared with a global public.

And this is where the match of director and subject starts to make sense. Howard’s recent biography on the Beatles and their touring years in Eight Days a Week was a nice precursor to this biopic, as the more we discover about Pavarotti, especially for non-opera types, the more we understand him as one of the great rock stars, selling over 100 million albums and performing in front of 10 million people over the course of his 45 year career.

At the beginning of the film, Pavarotti is asked what he wants to be. He replies ‘I want to be a man who brought opera to the people.’

He achieved that aim with the aid of two promoters who understood his potential for mass appeal; Harvey Goldsmith, who was looking for a replacement act when Bruce Springsteen became unavailable, and formidable record producer Tibor Rudas who handled global pop acts like Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton.

From a 1984 sold out concert at Madison Square Garden, to the incredible 3 Tenors shows with Placido Domingo and Jose Carrera who topped the charts with their recording of ‘Nessus Dorma,’ to the charity concerts with Sting, U2 and many other rock stars, Pavarotti left a massive mark.

On the whole, Ron Howard has done well with a narrative that follows a loose chronology while looping back to images of a childhood in the Italian village of Modena where the singer learned technique and inherited his baker father’s singing gift. Cossetted by an extended family of mostly women, Pavarotti had relationships with devoted women who also acted as secretaries and managers.

His more casual womanising and his reputation for cancelling concerts are glossed over, but Howard allows some flaws to emerge. The singer could be difficult and demanding, he travelled with 28 suitcases, and was a perfectionist and something of a glutton, who described himself as a ‘peasant’. Other details are fascinating, such as his enduring stage fright, and the extraordinary technique that earned him the nickname ‘The King of the high Cs.’

Howard’s choice to feature extensive interviews with Pavarotti’s first wife Adua Veroni and their three daughters and Juilliard student and long-suffering lover Madalyn Renee is a strong frame for the story. The director manages to elicit generous, frank disclosures from Veroni and second wife Nicoletta Mantovani who was 35 years the singer’s junior, causing a huge scandal when he wed her.

Howard manages to capture many sides of the singer through the various quotes from managers, rock stars and other opera singers. There is a nice explanation of what makes a tenor voice so unique and compelling, and Bono’s description of being steam-rolled into writing and performing ‘Miss Sarajevo’ for charity is funny and revealing.

There are occasions when the director’s efforts to speak to a broad audience go beyond obvious, like the hillbilly soundtrack when Pavarotti tours the midwest, or Veroni’s mention of a chicken being illustrated by… a squawking chicken.

But he certainly showcases those ‘peak’ moments, especially his trademark aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 3 Tenors concert on the eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

You certainly come away with a sense of Pavarotti’s extraordinary career and presence. Howard’s decision to aim for an impeccable sound recording, mastered at Abbey Road Studios, helps us appreciate the phenomenon of one of the greatest tenors of all time.